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Washington Nationals’ Tanner Rainey working back after minor muscle strain...

Tanner Rainey had some soreness around his “collar bone area” early this spring, so the Nationals are taking things slowly with the right-handed reliever.

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2021 Washington Nationals Photo Day Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In 20 appearances and 20 1⁄3 innings pitched in 2020’s 60-game COVID campaign, hard-throwing, recently-turned 28-year-old reliever Tanner Rainey put up a 2.66 ERA, 3.80 FIP, seven walks (3.10 BB/9), 32 Ks (14.16 K/9), and a .119/.213/.328 line against.

Opposing hitters who faced the Washington Nationals’ two-pitch pitcher combined for just a .149 batting average on his fastball (which averaged 96.6 MPH; down a bit from 97.7 MPH in 2019), and a .050 AVG on his slider (which averaged 87.1 MPH).

Rainey was shut down with forearm tightness late in the schedule, so his 2020 season ended on September 10th.

With what he showed while he was available, Rainey made a strong impression on the Nats’ brass.

“Rainey is slowly but surely becoming that guy, and every time out there you can see him building more and more confidence. It’s good,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters late last season.

“Here’s a guy last year, you got to remember, last year [2019] was his first year, and slowly but surely he started getting better and better. This year, he had some — a kind of confidence in him that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be able to pitch in the back end of the bullpen. I’m going to get high-leverage situations and get outs,’ and he’s been doing that and he’s been doing that really well.

“Moving forward ... I can see him being the closer. Right now he’s our eighth-inning guy, but I can see him moving into that closer’s spot in the future here, for sure.”

“There was never a question,” GM Mike Rizzo, who acquired Rainey from the Cincinnati Reds in a December 2018 trade, said towards the end of the 2020 season “... about his make-up or willingness to take the ball in big situations. So he’s proved our judgement correct there, that he has the late-inning mentality to pitch really leverage, meaningful innings, and couple that with the stuff he had, and now kind of all coming together where he’s pitching better, throwing a lot of quality strikes and really attacking the hitters, I think is the main reason he’s had such great success.”

Rainey’s absence from the first three games of the spring caught the attention of reporters, however, so Martinez was asked on Thursday morning what was going on with the righty.

“Tanner had a little bit of a — it’s not even his shoulder, it’s more of up in his collar bone area soreness, so we shut him down,” Martinez said.

“He’s throwing to about 90 feet now. But he’s throwing the ball, he feels a lot better, so hopefully we’ll get him back on the mound here real soon.”

“Collar bone area soreness?” Explique s’il vous plait?

“I think it was just more of a minor muscle strain,” Martinez explained, “but like I said, we shut him down for a few days, he’s throwing the ball at 90 feet now, he threw the ball the other day with no discomfort, so we’re going to get him built up and get him back on the mound as soon as possible.”

While the reliever’s 2020 campaign ended with an injury, the Nats’ skipper said he didn’t think the two issues were connected, and they planned to bring him, and other relievers who worked a lot last summer, along slowly this spring.

“We definitely wanted to bring him to camp and kind of take it easy. I know he worked out and did a lot of stuff this offseason,” Martinez said.

“He said he threw quite a bit, but with that being said, our discussion with him was just to get going slow like we did with the rest of the guys, [Daniel] Hudson, [Brad] Hand, [Will] Harris, and get him in that program, so as of right now, he’ll be ready to go. He’ll get about six or seven outings, and hopefully by the end, we’ll have him back-to-back days. Like I said, he feels better, he’s anxious to get on the mound.

“But right now we’re kind of just being very cautious and trying taking things slow.”

What’s the next step for Rainey, who struggled with his command when he came up with the Reds, but appeared to have turned a corner in his time in D.C.?

“One is right now just to make sure that he’s healthy. Two is, he’s matured a lot, as you can tell,” Martinez said.

“Last year, he was really doing really well until he got hurt, so we just want to continue with his progression, and I think he’s got all the make-up to be a closer and a back end guy.

“But like I said, he’s a younger guy, so we’re going to take it slow with him, but I still believe that when he’s ready he’s going to help us out in the back end of the bullpen and maybe close some games out for us.”